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On the Warriors and LeBron James

The greatest team and the greatest player ever are waging a timeless battle for the soul of basketball.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors
The pursuit of greatness.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

With their third title in four years, the Golden State Warriors have sealed their place in NBA history as one of the most explosive teams we’ve ever seen.

They are now a bona fide dynasty, and like all dynasties in sports are attracting their fair share of detractors.

‘They’ve ruined the game.’

‘They only win because they got KD.’

‘Jusuf Nurkic was injured.’

We all know the lines. There is something about the Warriors’ success that really galls a section of the NBA fan base beyond just the salty plains of Cleveland.

There is an element that believe this was supposed to be Lebron James’ time, and who are these upstart yuppies to steal his prime?

One of the greatest teams of all time

This was the team that only a few years ago had Bill Simmons writing the definitive eulogy of a dysfunctional franchise, doomed to be an irrelevance at best.

The story of this budding dynasty has been captured many times, including in Erik Malinowski’s definitive book, Betaball. It is a tale of an organizational turnaround not often seen in the world of sports or society. It is a tale of a complete culture change, based on investing in the smartest people on and off the court, and providing them the environment and space to build something new.

They’ve done this together, playing as one on the court, whether the Hamptons Five are moving on a string and covering every conceivable angle on defense, or whipping the ball around to a cutting role player on the other end.

Yes there was talent, but so many teams have drafted immensely talented players only to see them fall by the wayside. The character of the Warriors’ players, starting from Steph Curry has driven this success.

Let’s remember where these core guys were drafted. Steph Curry with the seventh pick. Klay Thompson with the eleventh. Draymond Green with the 35th pick.

They continued to exploit market inefficiencies by investing in character over raw talent and made bold moves based on creating a team first approach that delivered on both ends of the court.

They traded fan favorite and perennial twenty point-per-game scorer, Monta Ellis, for a defense minded center in Andrew Bogut. They maneuvered the salary cap to bring in the wise sage Andre Iguodala to cement their intellectual, character, and cultural advantage.

Off the court they invested in cutting edge technology and science, and crucially someone who could translate all the data that was churned out into something usable, as this great profile of Sammy Gelfand attests to.

The decision making process is not some dictatorial decree from on high. Ideas are welcomed from anywhere in the organization (Nick U’Ren’s famous suggestion to insert Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup in the 2015 Finals is the classic example of this). They talk things out, include a diversity of voices, and come to collective decisions about how to make their team better.

This is an organism that has grown together and positioned itself to be at the top of their field for as long as possible.

And then, yes, they have exploited that positioning and taken the opportunity every other team in the NBA had to sign one of the best players of his generation in Kevin Durant.

But they have then gone to great lengths to try to integrate Durant into the system and franchise, and stay true to their core values.

There is a reason the Warriors rank as one of the best teams of all time.

The balance at the heart of basketball

All of this is very difficult for a particular generation of basketball fans to cope with. It’s not really the dominance that upsets people so much.

After all, in the modern NBA we’ve seen the Showtime Lakers win five titles, battling Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics who won three. We saw Michael Jordan collect six rings, including two threepeats, in an era when no-one else stood a chance every single year. We saw a threepeat from Shaquille O’Neal’s and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, another double title for Kobe Bryant later on, and around all that the San Antonio Spurs winning five rings over 15 years.

So no, it’s not the dominance.

It’s the way it’s being achieved.

The beauty of the game of basketball is that it is a delicate balance. On the one hand it is a team sport. On the other it provides a platform for individual greatness.

This offseason the Warriors with Durant experienced this battle between two different philosophies about the game and had to work harder than ever to maintain that delicate balance at the heart of their success.

Their team-first culture and system is designed to elevate the talents of all and make the whole greater than the sum of it’s individual parts.

But there is another way.

The greatest player of all time

Like many NBA fans, I grew up watching Michael Jordan. He was a singular basketball force that I genuinely thought no-one could ever touch. Yes, he was part of one of the greatest teams of all time. But he was also an individual player who just took the NBA by the scruff of the neck and destroyed whatever was in his path.

When he retired in 1998, there was a vacuum in the heart of the NBA. It was filled with tremendous one-on-one players, who nobody in their right mind would want to face on the playground. Kobe Bryant was of course the most derivative of these, but the NBA was well and truly locked into hero-worshipping individual stars.

LeBron James is the latest in this line of incredible talents. He is challenging my pre-conceived notions of Jordan’s untouchability.

For much of his career, LeBron James has faced this very battle. He is more an heir to Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, with his unparalleled playmaking abilities.

But he also possesses that singular talent to will his team to victory. Whatever mitigating circumstances there were in 2016 from a Warriors point of view, James took that series and delivered some of the greatest playoff performances I have ever witnessed in my 25 years following the NBA.

Yes, he had help in Kyrie Irving. But it was built on his raw star power.

And that’s where you see the difference. After years struggling to make it to the mountain top on his own, he started this era of mega-teams when he took his talents to South Beach alongside another top 5 NBA talent in Dwayne Wade, and another top 10 NBA talent in Chris Bosh.

This was a juggernaut designed to break the NBA, formed from that very same material - raw star power.

I’ll be honest, at the time I hated the move. But as they wound up with two titles in four years, a frankly meagre outcome for all the fanfare, I grew to understand that success in the NBA is not a given. It has to be earned.

What LeBron James did though was shift the balance of power from teams and ownership to players. He opened the door for Durant to make his choice.

But it also diminished the concept of building teams the traditional way. Investing in culture, leadership, people. Making smart decisions. Finding complementary talent.

All that was blown away.

And it was supposed to continue after he assembled another superteam in his town Cleveland, who had lucked into five top four picks, and three number one picks, in the years he spent in Miami.

A franchise that had frittered away draft picks and talents, and was led by a man who famously publicly slammed Lebron James as he made his own decision, was saved by the accident of where the league’s greatest star was born.

The greatest rivalry of all time

Throughout his career LeBron James has faced something Michael Jordan never did. First as a young player, and then with the Miami Heat, James had to battle the San Antonio Spurs, a model franchise built on humble superstars and a team first system.

Now he is faced with the next generation of this phenomenon. Like all new generations, they take the old and reinvent it for modern times. But like the best, they keep the spirit intact.

What we have been privileged to see over the last four years is the very battle that rages at the heart of this wonderful game. Raw individual talent and power versus the collective will of a group.

LeBron James and these Warriors are locked in something bigger than the prisoners of the moment can understand or appreciate. This is league-changing, basketball-defining, legacy stuff.

Yes the NBA will never be the same again because of it. But the NBA will absolutely be better as a result.

Most importantly, it’s not over. LeBron James has another decision in front of him. How can he recapture the crown? Can he assemble another collection of raw star power to defeat this well oiled machine?

The whole of the basketball world is watching and waiting to see what happens next in this epic struggle between man and system.

And if you don’t like that, you don’t like NBA basketball.

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